Back to the motherland

Moving to New York four times means leaving at least three times. The first time I left I was nine years old. It wouldn’t take me long to realize that the city had left an indelible mark in me. Besides the fondness that I was developing for the city, living there would affect my feeling of cultural identity and belonging, and even how other people viewed and interacted with me.

After those three blissful years, my parents decided to return to Puerto Rico, and I am extremely grateful. I returned to my patria, strengthened my Spanish, got reacquainted with my cultural roots, and made many friends. I also expanded my musical horizons.

Eating oysters in Boquerón with a friend visiting from New York
Eating oysters in Boquerón with a friend visiting from NYC

Each day I explored my dad’s record collection more and more. He set up his stereo in the room that I wanted for my own because it felt hidden in the middle of the house. But dad set up his office in that cozy room, and his stereo fit neatly in the closet. He had so many records, my brother and I would spend hours looking at the covers and playing random albums to see what they sounded like. Around that time I remember often listening to “In Square Circle” by Stevie Wonder, the “Best of Bread,” Rod Stewart’s “Foot Loose and Fancy Free,” and “Abbey Simon plays Chopin.” My brother and I also got our first records, Men at Work “Cargo” and the Ghostbusters soundtrack, both of which I listened to a million times, and they reminded me of New York.

By this point I also loved cassette tapes for their portability, the fact that you could record on them, and even just the mechanics and aesthetics of the tape. Dad always had blanks around, to record albums or make mixes, and he let me have one whenever I needed it. I got my first walkman, and I was able to record songs I liked off the radio. I still have some tapes from that period, with portions of different lengths of the songs I was listening to on the radio (stuff like the Whispers, “Rock Steady, a remix of Debbie Gibson’s “Only in my Dreams,” and Bon Jovi “Wanted Dead or Alive”).

Media was developing quickly, and dad was always eager to explore new technology. He had already embraced reel-to-reel, records, cassettes, (not to mention Betamax and VHS), so when CDs were getting popular he bought a player. He got me my first CD for my 12th birthday, it was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which I also listened to many times.

An outsider in my home country

The transition to living in Puerto Rico was not smooth. I lasted two days at my first school, on the first of which I was slapped randomly by an older kid, and the second of which one teacher unfairly accused me, “the kid from New York,” of a prank committed by one of my classmates behind her back.

I felt a lot of nostalgia towards New York. I loved and missed Manhattan and Brooklyn, subways, museums, libraries, Pino’s Pizza, my school, Washington Square Park, among many other things. Spanish was my first language, but English was the language of New York, the language of the books that I had learned to love there, of the movies and television shows that I watched, and of the music that I preferred. I spoke to my brother in English, and to most of my closest friends in school (this caused animosity in a lot of my classmates, who often reminded me that I was in Puerto Rico now, and that I should be speaking in Spanish).

The books I read in Spanish at school were nowhere near as interesting as the books in English that I ordered from Scholastic catalogues or asked my parents to get me at bookstores. T.V. in Spanish meant the news, soap operas, or slapstick comedy shows, none of which I was particularly interested in. And I thought most of the music in Spanish on the radio was corny. There were a lot of translations of pop songs from English to Spanish, which to me were too emotional, and just an imitation of a superior original.

The gradual discovery of good music in Spanish

Meanwhile, my dad was listening to music from all over the world, and certainly listened to a lot of music in Spanish. Although I rejected some of it, almost without realizing it I started to like certain things, little by little. From this period I remember two Cuban albums that he listened to a lot: One was an album by Las Estrellas de Areito, the Cuban equivalent of the Fania All-Stars. It featured what I didn’t know at the time was a star-studded lineup, that included Ruben Gonzalez, Niño Rivera, Felix Chapottin, Tata Güines, among many others. For some reason, something about the first song on the album caught me, from the moment the singers harmonized that first phrase “Pican, no pican…los tamalitos que vende Olga, Olga…,” followed by a beautiful flute.

Another album was the self-titled “Son 14,” with a picture of the whole big band on the front cover, and a guajiro on the back cover who could have been a jíbaro, singing into the mic with shades on. The first side was full of gems: “Agua que cae del cielo,” was energizing, with great percussion, horns, and singing. “Tati una canción para ti” was unique, in that it started as a bolero, but then picked up steam and became danceable, only to end as a bolero again. Dad would dance to this music, with my mom or alone, and sometimes my brother and I would play shakers made from cans that were filled with rice and said “S.O.B.’s.” We thought the name was funny, and dad told us they were from a place in New York that he had been to when we lived there. Little did I imagine that I would experience S.O.B.’s in person many years later.

Dad had even more Puerto Rican music that I started appreciating. Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, “Juntos otra vez,” which was released in 1974, was still very popular in this period. “Quitate de la vía perico” and “Maquinolandera” were songs that I would hear on the radio or at a Christmas party and were super catchy, maybe the first salsa songs that I liked. One of the first things I noticed was that squeaky kid’s voice singing coro (Ismael Rivera, Jr., if I’m not mistaken). Something about the fact that a child was singing on an adult album was unexpected and cool.

I probably started liking a lot of music in Spanish through humor. Dad listened to Luis “Perico” Ortiz during this period, and he had several humorous salsa and merengue songs. The self-titled Haciendo Punto en Otro Son was a nueva trova album that I became fond of, probably because of the funny tango where the singer asks a former lover to return a pair of underwear that have sentimental meaning. But “Buscando America” by Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar made an even bigger impression.

It started with a second-person spoken word (“GDBD”) performed by Blades over a repetitive a capella bass line that sounds almost like a rumba. Although the lyrics have to do with the morning routine of a police officer who is going to arrest someone, it was easier for me to notice the humorous elements of the song, including the man repeatedly stepping on a puddle of dog piss and drying his foot with a Disneyland towel.

The hit from that album, “Decisiones,” also deals with serious topics but in a humorous way, including a verse sung in the voice of a drunk. These songs got me to pay attention to the rest of the album, and I started enjoying the other songs. “Desapariciones,” Blades’s reggae about forced disappearance was a beautiful song, and not what I would expect on a salsa album. So when a social studies teacher brought the album into class one day to talk about the theme of the title song, “Buscando America,” I was proud that I knew the album well. I was also surprised that a teacher in my evangelical school listened to salsa. Keep in mind that this was a school that held a yearly assembly to discuss how most of the music we were listening to had subliminal satanic messages, and that really the only safe music to listen to was Christian music.

None of my friends listened to salsa, and none of the other kids in my class seemed to know “Buscando America.” My friends in middle school listened to music from the U.S. and watched MTV. Some people liked the corny ballads in Spanish, and a lot of us liked Juan Luis Guerra, who was just blowing up in Puerto Rico, but for the most part it wasn’t just “the New Yorker” who had a preference for music in English.

Then, I started attending my first marquesina parties.* Just when my hormones were starting to boil, I started going to parties where we would dress up, some girls started using make-up and got fancy hairstyles, and we were all excited about hanging out at night outside of school. Most importantly, we were dancing. A lot of what we danced to was rock or pop, but we also started dancing ballads and even some of those Juan Luis Guerra songs. I’d get to dance up close with girls who were looking more and more like women, and I thought it was sublime.

*For a definition of a marquesina party (albeit a post-reguetón definition) see: http://remezcla.com/culture/what-the-f-is-a-party-de-marquesina/

Right around this period, my parents started talking about moving, either back to New York or to Philadelphia. I had spent five years in Puerto Rico and I had a lot of close friends. My Spanish and my English were just about on the same level, with my Spanish maybe having a slight advantage. Mostly, I wanted to stay. But part of me longed to return to New York, a place that in my memory was filled with magic.

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Let’s talk about music and NYC. I’ll start…

When I returned to New York City in 2010, it was the fourth time I moved to the only city in which I have truly felt at home. But more than any other time I lived here, I noticed the changes, and wondered whether I had fallen in love with the idea of a city that no longer existed.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about New York when I left in 2004 was going out dancing and seeing live music. Now the music and dance scene seemed different. I also returned to an activity that I hadn’t done seriously since 1999 in Manhattan- DJing. But the more I DJed, the more I felt these changes. Was the city really that different, or was it me? Or was it a universal change, that went beyond New York? If indeed the city had changed, were they changes for the worse that I should try to reverse? Should I find a “new” New York somewhere else? Or should I stop being stuck in the past and adapt to the new reality?

Since then I have engaged in many conversations with musicians, DJs, dancers, and other people living in New York about their opinions of New York City, how it has changed, in what ways it has stayed the same, how they remember it, and what they would like it to be. I decided to write about it, and found myself going back to the beginning, writing about when I first moved to New York, my earliest memories of music and how my taste in music developed. I hope to use this as a forum to start a conversation about music, DJing, dancing, performing and New York City.

The Beginning

My father is a true music collector and fan, and he is the first and most important source of musical education in my life. For as long as I can remember he’s had a large and varied music library, and would decompress by playing records, sometimes with headphones on, often singing along and dancing solo. Although my brother and I had a toy record player when we were very little in Ponce, Puerto Rico, I didn’t really become aware of music until we moved to New York in the eighties, when I was six years old.

New York city was like a different planet, there were so many more people from all over the world. All of my senses were on overload: the city was bigger, louder, and there were so many smells that I can still remember. There was also a lot more music all around me. People walked around with boom boxes, b-boys did windmills and backspins on cardboard, 70s and 80s pop played on the radio and my dad went crazy buying vinyl, mostly from Tower records.

Me and my bro, "before trains were graffiti proof..."
Me and my bro, “before trains were graffiti proof…”

In the beginning I didn’t speak English, so I would sing phonetically. At school, my cousin Tina accused me of singing a made up song when she heard me sing “gocha gecha gicha ga ga,” and I, offended, told her it wasn’t made up, that my dad listened to the record all the time. Eventually I learned the real lyrics to the Earth, Wind and Fire cover of “Got to get you into my life.”

One of the first records I remember my dad buying was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which is probably the album that I’ve enjoyed and consistently listened to for the longest period of my life. I loved every single song, and like everyone else who was around when it came out, appreciated it even more with every music video that Michael released. His dancing was just as inspirational and mind-blowing as his voice.

Dad was also really into Brazilian music at this time, and he bought many albums that I eventually grew to love, listen to countless times, and hunt down as an adult when I no longer had regular access to my dad’s vinyl. One of them is Djavan “Lilas.” It’s an album that sounds and looks unmistakably from the 80s. It brings back a happy melancholy, and transports me to many, many evenings spent listening to that album with my family.

I heard a lot of pop on the radio as well. “Borderline” by Madonna was one of the first songs that I remember listening to and feeling happy when it came on. When I heard “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, I felt like it was different from everything else I had heard. My friends at P.S. 234 talked about it and sang it. We listened to music at school too. We had a record player, which unfortunately only had two records: the Grease soundtrack, and the Rocky soundtrack. The stereo had two pairs of headphones and we’d listen to it in pairs. Listening to the Grease soundtrack with my second-grade crush Maya was a highlight of my early youth.

Hip-hop culture was also taking shape all around me, and it was electrifying. People would break on the streets, and eventually on the screen. I couldn’t get enough of looking at the dancers, and I wanted to be able to break too. I started listening to Run D.M.C., the Fat Boys, and L.L. Cool J. Eventually, my brother and I taught ourselves some of the moves, and brought them with us when we moved back to Puerto Rico the summer I turned nine.

New York had so much energy it blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Going to school a few blocks away from the Ghostbusters firehouse, it was like living in a movie, I felt like anything could happen.

New York was like a macrocosm of the Star Wars cantina, surrounded by people from all over the planet, speaking strange languages, dressed in so many different styles. That diversity was so fascinating I became addicted to it. I’ve sought it ever since in many aspects of my life, especially music.